Question: how are Chattanooga and the pop music of the late 1960’s related?
The answer is through a cover of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” recorded by Harper’s Bizarre, a California-based group that gave a psychedelic sound to old standards. I remember seeing the group perform our home town train song on the Red Skelton Show, and thinking about how this gave Chattanooga national publicity.
“Chattanooga Choo-Choo” is but one example of the rhythmic name of our city being mentioned in song. The following is a musicological look at several songs that have mentioned the Scenic City.
DOWN IN CHATTANOOGA (Irving Berlin, 1913)
On November 21, 1913, patients at Dr. E.G. Griffin’s Tennessee Dental Rooms were getting false teeth made for $8.00 on Market Street. An advertisement in the Chattanooga Times said that there were “genuine buggy bargains” at the Wallace Buggy Company. The Star Laundry was cleaning collars, and Volunteer State Life Insurance was offering long-term loans.
On that date, however, music lovers learned about other things going on “Down in Chattanooga.” This was the date of publication of Irving Berlin’s song by that name.
Irving Berlin wrote in first-person the words of a Chattanoogan who had been on vacation to see someone special. As a farewell, the person told his/her friend “When you’re down in Tennessee, stop at Chattanooga; … Down in Chattanooga…, you’re just as welcome as you can be.”
Belle Baker, a singer whose career spanned Broadway, film, radio, and television, popularized “Down in Chattanooga” during the Ragtime era.
RECORDINGS OF THE ALLEN BROTHERS, “THE CHATTANOOGA BOYS”
The Allen Brothers, Lee and Austin, were born atop Monteagle Mountain, and recorded blues and folk songs in the style of the music of their native area. They featured guitar, banjo, and kazoo in the songs which were heard on 78RPM records.
“Chattanooga Blues” and “Chattanooga Mama” were two songs in their repertoire which
referenced our city in their titles.
CHATTANOOGA CHOO-CHOO (Mack Gordon/Harry Warren, 1941)
The album “Glenn Miller: A Legendary Performer” includes some of the Chesterfield radio programs of the Glenn Miller big band. One is the February 10, 1942 presentation by RCA Victor to Glenn Miller of the first gold record for “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Accepting the award, Mr. Miller replies, “Thanks a million two hundred thousand,” referring to the number of copies sold to date of “Choo-Choo.”
The song has been recorded by many artists over the years. Bill Haley and His Comets gave it the rock-and-roll beat in the 1950’s. Pianist Floyd Cramer recorded it as an instrumental in 1962. After Harper’s Bizarre gave it flower power in 1967, the group Tuxedo Junction (named for another tune by Glenn Miller) revived it with a disco beat in 1978.
Fans of the Mel Brooks movie, “Young Frankenstein,” may remember laughing at the reference to their hometown song in a bit of dialogue. Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) asks a passerby, "Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania?" and is answered "Ja, ja, track twenty-nine!"
I remember that game show creator/host Chuck Barris gave Choo-Choo co-writer Harry Warren his own honorary day on “The Gong Show.”
“Chattanooga Choo-Choo” has also been featured for many years in the repertoire of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga band at athletic events.
CHATTTANOOGIE SHOE SHINE BOY (Harry Stone/Jack Stapp, 1950)
“Have you ever passed the corner of Fourth and Grand?” asked Grand Ole Opry star Red Foley, when he recorded this song that told of a Chattanooga-based entreprenuer. Well, there is a Fourth Street and a Fourth Avenue, and a Grand Avenue, but no intersection like in the song. Still, this boogie-woogie tune spent fifteen weeks on the charts, and peaked at number one.
On March 5, 1950, the Chattanooga Times reported a promotional event for the song. Some 20,000 people had gathered the previous day along the 800 block of Market Street – designated Grand Avenue for the day – to witness a competition of eighty shoe shiners. Red Foley was in attendance to sing his chart-topping song and Life magazine covered the story.
The winner, fiteen-year old “Bo” McCann. worked two part-time jobs at Mack’s Barber Shop and Kelly’s Meat Market while attending eighth grade classes during the day. He earned a trip to New York for taking first-place.
Other vocalists who recorded “Chattanoogie Shoo Shine Boy” were Freddy Cannon (better known for “Palisades Park”), Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra.
BACK IN THE U.S.A. (Chuck Berry, 1959)
Rock-and-roll pioneer Chuck Berry had traveled internationally by the time that he recorded “Back in the U.S.A.” in 1959, and was thus able to sing with homesick emotion, “New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you. Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge. Let alone just to be at my home back in ol' St. Lou(is).”
Chattanooga, of course, gave a nice rhythm to the list of cities that he missed. Linda Ronstadt longed for the same cities in 1978 when she covered the song.
Mr. Berry used the name of another Tennessee city, Memphis, as the “B” side to “Back in the U.S.A.”
I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE (Geoff Mack, 1959)
Research shows that this song itself has been everywhere, man. It originally listed towns in Australia that the singer had visited. In 1962, country singer Hank Snow popularized it with American city names in his list. New Zealand towns were destinations in a 1966 recording.
The U.S. version has Chattanooga in the fourth verse, between Haverstraw, New York and Chaska, Minnesota. Chattanooga is definitely a city worth a visit, but I’m not sure that it’s worth it to “cross the deserts bare” to get here, as the singer said.
CHATTANOOGA, THAT’S MY HOME TOWN (composer unknown; recorded circa 1966)
In 1965, there was a joint venture of the Baltz family of Nashville and the Wampler family of Lenoir City to form Elm Hill Meats. Shortly thereafter, the company produced promotional 45 RPM records alleged to be sung by “Elm Hill Bill.”
Each had “My Home Town” in the title, and the song was customized to include the names and descriptions of major cities in the company’s distribution area. So, in addition to “Chattanooga, My Home Town,” there were also renditions for Knoxville, Lexington, and Nashville.
The first line of Chattanooga’s homage is “Let me tell you about my home town. It’s the greatest in Tennessee.” The singer goes on to tell of the natural features of the Tennessee River, Moccasin Bend, and Missionary Ridge. Anything that one wants to buy can be found on Market Street. Rock City, Ruby Falls, and the Incline were mentioned in the lyrics.
The second half of the first side has a tune credited to George Morgan. Presumably, this is the Country Music Hall of Fame singer who recorded, “Candy Kisses,” and who was the father of current country singer Lorrie Morgan. He sings a marketing jingle about the quality Elm Hill meats.
The flip side of the record gives karaoke singers a chance to sing to a swinging instrumental version of “My Home Town.” This might be a good one to put on the old record player before stepping into the shower some morning.
CHATTANOOGA WALK (recorded in 1969 by Ray Gant and the Arabian Knights; former resident Earl Davis, producer)
Research has turned up very little so far about this intriguing tune. The library’s newspaper clipping file includes a November 12, 1969 photo and brief caption concerning “Chattanooga’s own, Earl Davis” who had produced the record. The caption mentions that “The dance is catching on all up north, and the song has just been released here in Chattanooga.”
There are several references to the record on the Internet, but all were listings of where old copies of the record could be purchased. It was apparently recorded on the Jay-Walking label.
CHATTANOOGA CITY LIMIT SIGN (Bob Drawdy, 1981)
In this song from his album, “The Baron,” Johnny Cash tells the tale of a nerve-wracking trip from Nashville to Chattanooga to retrieve a car that he had loaned his girlfriend. Since the car had also been his home, he had to hitch a ride with the driver of a 1951 Chevy.
From there, the trip was all down hill – literally – since it involved going down Monteagle Mountain at over 120 miles per hour with the driver saying, “Look here man, no hands!”
Johnny winds up in jail in Chattanooga, unable to remember what his charge was. The jailer replies, “For stoppin' traffic, while I was huggin' and kissin' The Chattanooga City Limit Sign."
In September, 1981, Chattanooga Public Works Commissioner Paul Clark traveled to present Johnny Cash with an official Chattanooga City Limits sign.
If you have memories of any of the songs above, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.